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Why the Press Needs Protection in Trinidad & Tobago

World Press Freedom map, at the Newseum in Washington, DC. Photo by Mr.TinDC, used under a CC license.

World Press Freedom map, at the Newseum in Washington, DC. Photo by Mr.TinDC, used under a CC license.

After the murder of Dana Seetahal earlier this month, one reporter, Mark Bassant, was doggedly pursuing the story. Now, the journalist attests that his life has been threatened because of his investigative reporting.

The Activized blog has not taken well to the news. In a post entitled #PROTECTTHEPRESS, the blogger, Brendon O'Brien, interprets the significance of what that means for the country:

If you’re an everyday Trini, that means that our country has gone to the dogs. If you’re even just an aspiring journalist, that means a lot more…

People don’t understand what’s the purpose of journalism. It’s got nothing to do with just telling people what’s happening, or embarrassing famous people, or simply telling people interesting things. It’s about democracy. Yes, just in case you didn’t know, the news (like everything else) is about power. But where most things are about fighting for or undermining power, journalism is tasked with sharing, guarding and mitigating power. Put much more simply, a journalist’s job is to make sure that a citizen’s vote counts for as much as possible, and that they know all they need to know before they vote for anything ever again.

Investigative journalism, maybe more than any other form of journalism, is critical to that democratic defence…Mark Bassant might just have been doing his job too well…

The post explains why Bassant could have become a target:

He was attempting to lift the veil on a possible criminal organization that could execute a task – and even a person – with such strategy and prejudice. He was attempting to reveal the inability of our current protective mechanisms to defend its citizens of any class, or even to respond to a rapidly developing criminal threat. He was attempting to give citizens the information they need to demand the systems and responses they deserve to feel safe. He, like countless journalists before him, have tried in their own small ways to bring this to light, and it seems that we slip even further into the darkness.

The blogger places the blame squarely at the feet of the government – and not solely because of the administration's inability to harness the crime problem:

In the last few years the government has attempted to strip the so-called Fourth Estate of the tools it needs to defend the democracy. This means, at the very least, that those voted in care enough about power to inhibit the systems that protect those who vote for them. It is this same somewhat inhibited system that Mark Bassant operated from – the same one that had a journalist’s office and home raided for information pertaining to an article he wrote (and by a former news media head and politician, by the way). This means, at the very least, that those voted in care enough about power to inhibit the systems that protect those who vote for them. It is this same somewhat inhibited system that Mark Bassant operated from – the same one that had a journalist’s office and home raided for information pertaining to an article he wrote.

O'Brien continues:

If our journalistic integrity and safety is compromised, there is no tool to retain order in the constant sociopolitical power struggle that the common man often doesn’t get to participate in. But, also, if the powers that be are failing to mitigate the threats to their own people and power, then journalists aren’t safe to search for the truth at any rate.

The blogger remains firm in his conviction that no matter how critical the media is of the government, press freedom should remain unfettered:

The news has not been friendly towards the government. It should not be expected to, to be honest. Its job is to show us who these people are, let us know what they’re doing, and let us decide whether we are okay with it.

He also places blame, however, on the citizenry:

Part of the problem is, we’re still not making the decisions that protect our own democracy. We’re not displeased enough with the news to make sure that journalists don’t have to tell these stories any more. So, for our sake, journalists still tell those stories. They do their job, no matter how potentially unsafe it gets (and for Trinidad it’s getting much worse). And that’s how Mark Bassant got to the place where he had to report on a Senior Counsel getting gunned down on her way home. And that’s how he got to the place where he has to fear his own life in his own home country. So we can defend our rights in our own home country.

O'Brien has some next-step suggestions:

There are a lot of things that need to happen now. Our government needs to (finally) create strategies that prevent organized crime from seizing its own power and challenging the social contract that citizens have made with their democracy. At the same time, that democracy needs to keep its part of the social contract bargain. With or without that, the citizens of this country need to respond to inconvenient truth not with apathy, but with enthusiastic disgust. It’s our job to fight back and demand more or better when we are provided with information that proves that we are getting less than we deserve.

He ends with a metaphor:

Democracy is our vehicle towards a life of peace and prosperity. It’s already bad enough that our engine is leaking and our airbags and seatbelts don’t work. What we do have is a monitor that is telling us exactly what’s wrong. And we’re not listening. And it may cost us the entire ride home…

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